(A SHORT STORY BY PADDY’S FRIEND AND FELLOW INMATE, JEFFREY S. BELL)
WHEN VAN SINGS ‘MOONDANCE’
You play ‘what if’ quite a bit when you come to prison. What if I wouldn’t have done that? What if I would’ve done this? What if I wouldn’t have been the final cut from the eighth grade basketball team? Would things have turned out different? Would I have a better self-image if I had made the team? Was this all Coach Bridinger’s fault?
And now, here I was about to embark on the answer to an enormous ‘what if’ – one I had contemplated over and over. Taking a deep, slow breath, I pulled open the old, ornate door with ‘Bamboo’s’ stenciled in script on the leaded glass and walked in.
When did my life start to unravel; where did the trail of ‘what if’s begin? Our criminal justice system had given me plenty of time to think about this. That’s the original premise behind the practice of putting criminals in penitentiaries – so they could think about their sins and misdeeds and hopefully become penitent. In early days, prisoner’s were given a Bible, locked in a dark, dank cell and expected to read and repent. Now, the prison experience seems to center around gangs, tattoos and coming up with new, tasty microwave recipes.
Will and Beck – my cellies – and I often played ‘what if’ as we sat in the 8 x 10 walkin closet that was our home. And eventually, the question was always applied to women, to romance.
Beck wondered ‘what if’ about a petite, black haired girl he met while playing keyboards in a rock band. Her name was Marie. “She looked like Courtenay Cox – an awesome body?” All of Beck’s women had ‘awesome bodies’ and looked like celebrities. In his mind he had dated, among others, Nicole Kidman, Lindsay Lohan and Angelina Jolie. “She started showing up wherever we played; she was like our groupie. One night after the show, we went out for coffee and talked for two hours. She was amazing! But I had just started dating Christine a few weeks before and…” Beck’s voice and thoughts trailed off into a ‘what if’.
Will’s ‘what if’ woman was Jade; he had met her a couple weeks before he came in. They started writing and talking on the phone. “She’s the perfect woman for me – dark, gloomy, cynical. And she’s an anthropologist at the museum; she’s putting together an exhibit now on cultures that practiced alteration of the human body – tattoos, piercings, elongation of lips and ear lobes, that sort of thing. Amazing!”
Jade, however, was Will’s ex-girlfriend Sarah’s roommate. Will and Sarah had mutually agreed to breakup when he came to prison. “So, it’s okay right – that I’m talking to Jade?” he asked us one night.
“Are you totally insane. Do you want to go through even further hell?” Beck responded.
“Well, is Sarah someone who would say ‘Honey, it’s okay that you’re bopping my best friend. I’m happy for you guys. I just want you to be happy’?” I asked.
Will thought for a few seconds before answering, “Maybe…possibly…probably not.”
“There you go.”
We tossed around possible solutions to Will’s dilemma including the oft fantasized about but seldom realized ménage a trois. Eventually, Jade found a boyfriend on the other side of the fence; Sarah and Will started communicating again and he was left pondering ‘what if’.
“What about you, let’s hear it,” Beck asked and they both looked at me, eager to hear about my lost love.
“Ah, Lynette. She was my soulmate and I let her get away,” I answered, then told them my tale.
I had noticed Lynette at my son’s hockey practice – her son was on the same team. She was stunning, tall, slender, auburn hair, incredible eyes. There was something about the way she walked, laughed, just stood by the rink watching, talking to the other parents.
At first we exchanged glances, then smiles and eventually words – chit chat about the team, our lawns and other suburban chatter. Underlying it all though was a mutual desire for more.
One night, Lynette told me that my wife had told her we were having problems and had separated. “I’m sorry, I know it’s hard. Scott and I went through it four years ago.” She handed me a business card with her home and cell numbers written on the back. “If you ever need to talk…”
Well, we talked. We met for drinks and I told her my woes. She listened and empathized, “God, it all sounds so familiar.”
One night we went to dinner and a movie. Afterwards, at her house, we drank some wine and listened to music – she loved Van Morrison. Suddenly, we were kissing. Lynette looked at me with smoldering eyes, “Do we want to do this?” she asked, knowing we both did. We made love as Van sang ‘Moodance’.
It was an amazing few weeks: lunches, dinners, long talks far into the night about life, music, art, politics, religion.
“What happened?” Will asked. “How did you blow it?”
“We had just spent a couple days together in Baltimore, the Inner Harbor. An incredibly romantic two days, like a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie. Sunday was Easter and my son’s birthday, so my wife had invited me to the house for dinner. What happened? Extreme guilt. My wife convinced me to come back though I didn’t want to. I left Lynette that morning saying I’d be back, but I stayed there with my wife and kids.” I took a deep breath. “Lynette called me at my office the next day, sobbing. She had waited up most of the night for me. God… I didn’t know what to say.”
“That’s the last time you talked with her?” Beck asked.
“We talked occasionally, but lost touch finally. My wife and I divorced a few months later, but it was too late… I don’t think a day’s gone by that I haven’t thought about what if I’d gone back to her that night.”
Beck, Will and I all sat silent on our bunks, each pondering our own ‘what if’s’; all around us the sounds of prison life – inane, senseless arguments, in-your-face taunting and someone singing the angry lyrics of a rap song.
Time slows up the closer you get to your release date. Till then time blurs, becoming inconsequential as each day runs into the next; nothing ever changing. Meanwhile, you’re missing so much on the outside: your youngest son learning to drive, the oldest going off to college, three dollar a gallon gas.
A couple of months before I was to be cut loose back into society, the days crawling by now, I was reading in my bunk when Will brought our mail back from mail call, dropping mine on the bed. I didn’t recognize the handwriting on one letter and there was no return address. The writing looked feminine though – the only women who wrote me were my mom and sister. I pulled the single page out and began reading.
“Oh my God…” I said.
“What? Something happen?” Will asked.
“This is from Lynette.”
“The Lynette, the lost love, soulmate Lynette?” Beck asked.
“Yeah…I can’t believe it! Listen.” I read them the letter.
She had tracked me down on the Bureau of Prison website and hoped I didn’t mind that she had written. But, she had thought about me a lot lately. She said when she had read I’d been arrested in the paper she had sat on the kitchen floor and cried for an hour. She missed me – I made her laugh and she didn’t laugh near enough anymore. She just wanted to see me, to talk; she’d be at our favorite place the Friday after my release and hoped I would come.
“Unbelievable!” Beck said as I handed him the letter so he could confirm what it said.
“You are going aren’t you?” Will asked.
“What do you think? Not a day’s gone by where I haven’t thought of her.” My old ‘what if’ had been replaced by a new one – what if I meet Lynette and things go well? Or what if they don’t?
Bamboo’s hadn’t changed during the past almost four years. I breathed in the smoky atmosphere as if it were fresh mountain air. I scanned the crowd; some looked familiar, still sitting it seemed on the same stools at the bar. They I spotted her in the corner booth where we always sat.
She sat with one foot up on the seat, an arm around her knee, staring out the window, deep in thought – probably pondering ‘what if’, or more likely ‘what have I done’. She was just as beautiful as I recalled.
“Hi,” I said startling her. Lynette looked up at me with those emerald eyes. Then she smiled the smile that had lingered in my soul. I caught my breath.
“Hi,” she whispered. For a scant second, I thought this must all be just another prison dream. Your dreams in prison become an escape – you always dream of life beyond the fences; glorious dreams that linger into the early morning, leaving you in a state of hazy contentment. But, as you awake to the bleak, gray walls, the coarseness of the brown, worn blanket and the nasal snoring of the guy in the next cube – your contentment dissipates and reality settles in.
I slid into the booth across from her; moments passed as we just looked at each other. “You look good, skinnier,” she said.
“Prison food and yoga,” I replied. “You look incredible…breathtaking. You really do.”
We talked again, as we always had; thirsting to hear the other’s thoughts, each other’s voice; share feelings. It was so easy, as it always had been. Had four years actually gone by?
“What was it like?” she asked.
“Well, nothing like you picture. Nothing like Oz or Prison Break.” I paused. “Think Mayberry, Otis is your cellie and Barny has the keys.”
I told her prison tales; stories of the insanity and inanity of the system – humorous stories. We talked about our kids – her oldest son in medical school, mine in law school; both of our youngest seniors in high school. And she made a list of must-see movies I had missed.
Taking a sip of wine, Lynette put the glass down and reached across the table, putting her hand on mine. “God, I always felt so connected to you. Like no one else.”
“I know…I felt that too,” I replied.
“And making love was…” she started.
“Was incredible. I loved being with you,” I said. “That was an extra; here’s this amazing woman whom I love just sitting beside and talking with. And I also get to make love to her.” I paused, trying to fully express the thoughts I had written in my journal for years. “It was like the prize in a box of Cracker Jacks – caramel-coated popcorn, peanuts…and this cool prize.”
Lynette laughed, “I guess I’ll take that as a compliment.”
She moved her hand from mine. “Remember that night, the night you didn’t come back?”
“I’m sorry…I…” I hesitated, searching for words.
“I was gonna drive over there, confront Karen. Tell her we loved each other and wanted to be together. I came so close; I actually got in the car.”
“Maybe you should’ve. I couldn’t. I wanted to, but just couldn’t.” Now I reached out for her hand, I needed to touch her, feel her warmth. “I so regret not coming back to you. I just…I felt so damn guilty, like a horrible dad. I had to stay.”
“I know…I know,” she squeezed my hand. “It was just bad timing. I was ready, but you weren’t there yet. Just bad timing.”
We sat in silence, separately sharing the same ‘what if’.
“So…now what?” Lynette looked at me with questioning eyes.
“Shhh,” I reached out and touched her smile with my fingertips.
“No questions. Listen. Van’s singing ‘Moondance’.”